Subsidies and Food Security

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I’ve been to Australia. (That’s me hiding behind the woman in the blue top. No really, it is!)

Before I went, I thought Montana was “big country.” Not that Montana isn’t (incredibly beautiful) big country, but Australia redefines the meaning.

This trip was yet another opportunity offered to me by the Eisenhower Fellowship program. (If you know an outstanding farmer or rancher between the ages of 35 and 45, please tell them about the program. It’s a fantastic opportunity.) Because of my Fellowship, the Nuffield International Farming Scholars Program invited me to come down under and participate in the annual Contemporary Scholars Conference, held in Sydney and Canberra this year.

Big ideas for agriculture in a big country.

Surrounded by about 60 outstanding young farmers from all over the world (The Netherlands, India, UK, Ireland, France, Brazil, China, Indonesia to name a few), the richness of discussion (as you can imagine) humbled me (and, truthfully, made me realize just how ethnocentric I may be—a very good thing for my worldview). Poverty and hunger, efficiency and stewardship, a definition of sustainability, all these topics came up for debate.

You (all 12 of you that read this blog! Thanks Dad!) may be subjected to the residual thoughts from this experience for quite a while. That’s a fair disclaimer, I think.

Have you ever had two concepts that you previously believed lived independent lives suddenly crash together in your brain and form a connection completely new to you? (No? Well, that’s bit awkward for me, then. Ah well. Not the first time.) In one of my first posts to this site, I named it the Shiver of Coalescence. Well, guess what?! Oops, it happened again.

The two concepts bouncing around my brain, now linked with a flexible thought-wire, are subsidies (how’s that for a loaded word?) and food security.

Prior to March 1, I knew very little about EU subsidies for agriculture, other than the offhanded, sardonic comments from others (who, in retrospect, frankly knew about as much the topic as I did). I learned a LOT (but not nearly all there is to know—it is, as they say, complicated) about the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, a policy undergoing fairly significant change as we speak. Don’t worry, I’m not going to try to explain (or defend, or for that matter, attack) it in this space. Not only am I too ignorant, I’m also too cowardly.

Learning more about debate on CAP, listening to various farmers from various EU member countries, and other countries, and thinking about my own friends in the US, set me to wondering (a dangerous pass time I try only to engage in on Saturdays).

What is the role of farmer supports in global food security, availability, affordability?

Quite a few people in my acquaintance aggressively ascribe to free markets. My trouble is, every time I ask them what that means, I get a different answer. Since I’m a big fan of precise communication (insofar as it exists) I’ve often dug further, trying to understand the concept.

Some people believe disaster relief for farmers fits rationally into free market agriculture, while some say natural disasters and the chaos they cause are all part of a free market. These ideologically pure folks might argue that a system shock such as hurricane Katrina or the devastating blizzard in the Dakotas comes as a natural part of free markets and the elimination of farms and farmers due to those shocks is just part of doing business in a free market. Others would argue that this may cause citizens to lose livelihoods, or even to go hungry, and this would not be acceptable. While some say grazing on public lands constitutes price supports, some get really, really red in the face when they hear that (like I’m-afraid-they’re-going-to-have-a-stroke-red-in-the-face.) And so on. (And on.)

I believe every government has certain responsibilities for feeding its citizens. Among these: food security, availability, and (in countries blessed enough to think about it) affordability. These responsibilities demand attention to resilience in the food system, including environmental, social, and economic factors.

Food comes from farming. Farming is an inherently risky business.

So what is the responsibility of governments, and the responsibility of private individuals or corporations, to assure this resiliency in our global food system? Or, to bring it close to home, what responsibility do we have to feed people–in our hometown, in our country, in our world? What is the right balance between independent, free markets and food security and sustainability?

Even though I’ve always considered myself a free market devotee, I’ve recently begun to think that while this creed may work in widgets, feeding people—whether in the food deserts of the U.S. or on a global scale—just isn’t that simple.

But while they prate of economic laws, men and women are starving. We must lay hold of the fact that economic laws are not made by nature. They are made by human beings.” ~Franklin D. Roosevelt

“You can’t have a world where 50 percent of the people are dieting, and 50 percent of the people are starving, if you want stability.” ~John Shelby Spong

For those who have been reading this space all along (bless your hearts), here are some beautiful Australian mangoes at the vegetable market in Sydney. Very good. But…remember the mangoes I had in Taiwan? I do. Mmmmm.

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Fallow Fields and Food Security

As an American, I find it difficult to imagine what it must have been like in Japan during the Allied occupation post WWII. Given Japan’s seclusion from the rest of the world for much of history, the profound shock to the people and traditional culture, as the country faced loss, widespread starvation and homelessness, must have been calamitous.

During the occupation, Allied forces reshaped Japan into a democracy modeled, roughly, after the American New Deal. Japan’s post-war constitution, adopted in 1947, removed political and military power from the emperor, and includes a clause (Article 9) which banned Japan from leading a war or maintaining armed forces. Shinto and the state were clearly separated.

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Changes to the Japanese Empire post WW2.

This bit of history led me to better understand land use in Japan, and some of the issues Japan faces regarding agriculture. Prior to the war, Japan’s regions cultivated agricultural land in large tracts, with farmers working in a serf-like system, farming for an overlord and keeping a percentage of the harvest to feed families and communities. Post-war reform eliminated these concentrations in land ownership and instead awarded small, subsistence tracts to private citizens.

The latter fact becomes important to Japan’s current land use and food self-sufficiency status. The farmer population in Japan, with a current average age of 66, may not farm for long. In some cases, farmers choose to let ground lie fallow, rather than selling it, because keeping the land has tax advantages.  In other cases, owners may rent the land to younger farmers, if they find youngsters who want to farm. As a result of an aging farmer population and agriculture land left unused (among other factors), the number of agriculture workers decreased from 14.39 million in 1960 (32.7 percent of the total workforce) to 2.38 million in 2010 (4.2 percent), and the GDP share of the industries fell from 12.8 percent in 1960 to 1.2 percent in 2010. Rice output dropped from around 11 thousand tons in 1995 to around 8.5 thousand tons in 2010. The total number of commercial farm households dropped from 3 million in 1990 to 1.6 million in 2010 to an estimated 1.1 million in 2020. Productivity growth in vegetables, fruits and nuts output provides some degree of mitigation, but the downward trend in overall productivity remains.

Almost every veggie gets pickled in Japan, and “pickles” don’t just refer to pickled cukes.

The current government recognizes the resultant challenge to both food security and self-sufficiency, and determined a goal of 50 percent food self-sufficiency in its 2010 “Basic Plan for Food, Agriculture and Rural Areas.” However, even if the goal is fully realized, the situation appears to make trade agreements critically important to Japanese food security.

The following map provides the current status of Japan’s ETA/FTA negotiations. Apologies for the quality, I scanned it from a document provided to me at the Ministry of the Economy yesterday. Remember, trade negotiations are fluid, status may change daily (Hourly? Heck, it’s probably already outdated!)

Current Japan Trade Negotiations map

Many, many thanks to Watanabe-sensei, a professor of International Trade Policy at Kei University, and a trade negotiator, as well as officials at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, and the Ministry of Agriculture for the valuable historic and land use information contained in this post. A very special thanks to Tamazawa-san, a former minister of agriculture and minister of defense for Japan, who was intimately involved in Doha Round and the original WTO talks, for two full hours of his valuable time, and his wise perspective. 

Happily, no blog post would be complete without a photo of something I ate.

Soup, a grilled egg dish served over rice, and a side of fresh spring veggies. While the rest of our party ate the egg nearly raw, I asked for it cooked slightly firmer. I’m trying all the foods I can, but raw eggs still pose a problem for me–safety and consistency-wise. Rice comes into two types (with many, many varieties within these types)–Japonica and Indica. Japonica rice has a round grain and becomes sticky and moist when cooked. Indica rice grains are long and, when cooked, stay fluffy and do not stick together. Typically, Japanese cuisine uses Japonica rice and ASEAN cuisine uses Indica rice, although beef, pork and chicken curry dishes (originally from India but now called “Japanese curry” in Japan) are ubiquitous in Tokyo and contain Indica rice.